November 2006

Charles de Foucauld: In the Footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.  By Annie of Jesus. New City Press. 103 pages. $12.95.

Even in times of sadness, conflict, and war, God blesses us with men and women filled with the Holy Spirit. Charles de Foucauld was such a man, a priest who sought the Way of Jesus. Charles was born on September 15, 1858. A child of tragedy, he lost both his parents by the time he was 12. Devastated by their deaths, he early on lost his way and fell into sin. Still, there was something positive in his abiding sense of adventure. Learning that the French army was moving into Africa, he applied to a regiment in Algeria. The vast spaces of Algeria fascinated him, and so there he remained, living among the Moroccans -- and learning a great lesson.

Charles realized that there was something beautiful in Islamic devotion. As Annie of Jesus notes, "It was not Christians, then, who awakened Charles's religious yearnings, but other believers, fellow children of Abraham." The Muslims prayed; they loved God. In God's plan, they did for Charles what Christians had not: They showed him a path beyond his sensuality.

In October 1886, having turned to the Sacrament of Penance, Charles realized his love of Jesus Christ. Père Henry Huvelin, his constant friend, became his spiritual guide. From the moment he had wanted to go to Africa, God had taken advantage of Charles's love for adventure. Perhaps that is why he desired so much to form his own mission. He lived among the Trappists, the Poor Clares of Nazareth, and Beni Abbes, but they were too removed from what Charles thought was his calling: To live Christ's words, "What you have done for the least of these, you have done for me.... What you have not done for the least of these, you did not do for me."

Charles wanted to live in simple charity. He had heard stories about the tribe of Tauregs in the Hoggar desert, a dangerous region of Africa that was threatened with war. An opportunity opened, as if God were calling upon this adventurer's soul. He traveled to Tamanrasset, a tiny village of Tuaregs. Knowing that the Lord would find His own way to win its inhabitants, Charles decided to "encourage them discreetly to abide by natural religion," living among them in a luminous compassion. He loved them, and they loved him. God did the rest.

But in December 1916 the tenuous stability of the Tuaregs -- and Morocco -- fell apart. Raiding parties looking for hostages and firearms came to Tamanrasset. They accidentally killed Charles de Foucauld at his shelter, a bordj, constructed for the poor. There was no grand martyrdom. As his biographer tells us, Charles had seen "in the Incarnation love for all people, the love God has for them."

Charles de Foucauld traveled into the Sahara to live without any earthly safeties, as Jesus lived. Recognizing his "heroic virtue," Pope John Paul II accepted Charles as a candidate for beatification. To complete the beatification, a miracle would need to be attributed to him. It came in the medically inexplicable healing of an Italian woman stricken with cancer. Charles was beatified on November 13, 2005.

- Clayton Brockman



The Popes and Slavery.  By Joel S. Panzer. Alba House. 124 pages. $7.95.

Fr. Joel Panzer disputes the charge that the Catholic Church has been "soft" on slavery, and he sets out to dispel what he sees as misinformation about the popes' opposition to it. He includes texts from relevant documents from the popes or the Holy Office over the past six centuries -- sources often misquoted by scholars. In part, Panzer is responding to arguments made by Judge John Noonan.

Panzer aims to show that since the beginning of the "Age of Discovery," the popes have repeatedly condemned slavery. In 1435 Pope Eugene IV wrote against the enslavement of Canary Islanders, some of whom were Christians. Later popes attacked the enslavement of blacks from Africa and of Indians in the Americas.

Yet Panzer's evidence shows that the popes condemned only aspects of slavery, such as enslavement of free peoples simply because they were vulnerable, or because of race or religion, or because they were seen as less than human. Despite the restricted focus of their admonitions, the popes threatened violators with stern penalties, even excommunication.

Even so, the popes did not attack slavery itself. They did insist that slave traders produce "just title" to their holdings, but they also allowed that perpetual servitude might be voluntary! Still, they mandated that slaves have the opportunity for education, Baptism, and growth in the Faith.

Harkening back to Paul's Letter to Philemon, the Church taught that mistreatment was forbidden. The "sale" of a slave was acceptable only when seen as the sale of his service, and the terms of sale should require that his condition not be worsened. (Opposition to slavery based on human dignity itself wouldn't appear until much later.)

Panzer succeeds in demonstrating a not unimpressive record of the Church's efforts to limit the evils associated with slavery, even if she didn't mark the exact moral boundaries of the practice. But perhaps Panzer tries to prove too much. In 1839 Gregory XVI issued the constitution In Supremo, explicitly addressing the slave trade. Panzer argues that this document condemns both the slave trade and slavery itself. The constitution's language, however, is not explicit enough to support his conclusion. Only with Leo XIII's encyclicals of 1888 and 1890 did papal teaching abandon the categories of "just" and "unjust" perpetual servitude and declare slavery an "evil institution."

Panzer seems a bit embarrassed to acknowledge the unstated premise of all the popes' statements: that involuntary servitude is not per se condemned. But he sharply criticizes the American bishops of the early 19th century.

The Church in the U.S. was not much involved in the abolitionist movement, partly because the Catholic population was very small and its position tenuous. But the author reveals that, when asked, some American bishops declared that it was wrong for slaves to escape even if unjustly held (contrary to Rome's teaching). They also believed that continued bondage would be a lesser evil than a hasty emancipation.

Panzer identifies two other factors in the Church's absence from the abolitionist efforts: the American bishops' misrepresentation of these papal documents and their claim that Rome's anti-slavery edicts didn't apply to America. This sad chapter in our history, he observes, has parallels in the relationship between the Vatican and the American Church today.

- Jim Taylor





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